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My column on TMI

As I anchored a simulcast involving TVM andRadju Malta (Ghandi xi Nghid) on Saturday morning during the Local Council elections counting process it was fascinating to note how people in Malta still value politics, enjoy participating, think highly of most politicians and there is a sense of commitment towards their towns, villages and neighborhoods.  People by-and-large value the Local Councils and seem to appreciate the importance they have in ensuring the well-being of their community. mock

Many might argue, probably correctly, that the level of participation is due to the fact that Malta is equably split in politics as in many other matters that govern our society and this spurns the people to feel obliged to engage.  But I believe that people want to get engrossed because this is still a relatively young democracy and we recognize that political affairs are at the heart of the way our communities operate.  Furthermore it appears that being such a small country means we are never too far from the issues.

Now every ballot has a story and every election comes with a narrative but we need to be careful that when analysing statistics, outcomes speak a fact that is valid for that particular moment when people are voting.

If we were to be honest the outcomes of the Local Council elections, as has been stated repeatedly, cannot be understood simply as being an election that simply determines the choice of councilors.  This ballot vote had different facets, that is to say, personal (like/dislike towards incumbent councilors), party loyalties, the coinciding hunting referendum and a commitment to the Leader amongst other.  There is no one identical position that applies to all.

My first reflection is palpable.

The Labour Party even though half-way through its first legislature and after a generation of PN Governments has managed to maintain a significant  9 percentage points majority which in terms of votes is estimated at 11,000 – an emphatic win considering these elections covered just half of the localities in Malta.  All-in-all it seems that the Labour Party has managed to survive this test even though a number of contentious themes were breathing down the Government’s neck.

The electorate, in a number of Local Councils in Malta seems to be indicating that bit by bit they are migrating back to the PN.  It would be interesting to understand whether these are disgruntled Labour supporters, floaters that decided on giving the vote to the PN this time round, PN supporters ‘returning to base’, the upshot of 16 and 17 cluster of voters  or a mix of all of this. What is clear is that the swing in Malta is consistent across most of the contested councils.

In the case of Gozo there is a steady shift towards the PL that could be a way of waving good bye to the Nationalists ascendancy in District 13, perhaps cognizant of the alleged ‘free works’ tittle-tattle commissioned by the husband of ex-Minister Giovanna Debono.  I believe that the feeble support of the Nationalist Party towards the cause of this former PN stalwart in Gozo did not help the Nationalist cause either.

The truth is that the Labour Party in these elections has made important in-roads in Gozo even though one has to keep in perspective that the electorate here may also have been inclined by the referendum.

Gozo is particular because of the exacting needs and this community has a number of challenges that make life in certain circumstances more difficult.  It is obviously a plus for the PL to have this district gradually aligning itself on the PL side. Nevertheless history has shown us that Gozo has always been unpredictable and tends to drift away from the broader national trends.

The Nationalist Party on the other hand can take in air with relative comfort finally.

For over two years the PN has not only lost elections but hardly gained any ground.  There was this feeling around, which is extremely dangerous in terms of democracy, that the PN is destined to lose another one or two general elections before it can start to provide a challenge of some sort. If this was the case it would not only be bad, but a tragedy for our democratic system.

In fact the basic premise here is that there is no democracy if there is no choice.

I have been critical of the Nationalist Party in the past because it has not been responsive enough.  Enthusiasm was hard to come by and the party felt feeble and ineffective.  However in this election the PN took its campaign back to the grassroots.

The Local Councils were a perfect opportunity for the Nationalists, firstly because there were a great deal of candidates and MPs mobilized on the ground and secondly, this was a great opportunity that didn’t go to waste where the focus was personal contact.  Such campaigns do not require too much money but mostly time, organisation and commitment.  Another issue that featured in the PN campaign is that the strategists realized that the Leader of the Opposition is not the ‘spokesman’ of the Party but he is there to lead.   Love it or hate it in politics protecting the leader is curial, something that at the beginning of Busuttil’s tenure was not happening and he was left to his devices.

But I believe there is another issue that merits consideration and might have tilted the balance as well.

Any mocking strategy risks derailing the cause and will make ‘you’ lose the plot.  If there is anything that is guaranteed to work in politics it is sympathy.

Our post-independence political history is riddled with stories of politicians getting the flak and this ricocheted in the face of the perpetrators.  President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami, who turned out to be one of the principal figures in the Nationalist Party started his career being called a ‘vavu’ by his adversaries.  Ex-Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici had his share of mockery by being called ‘iz-Zero’.  Ex-Prime Minister Dr Alfred Sant was ‘bestowed’ all the adjectives under the sun but this only helped propel him into power in the 1996 elections.  When Dr Joseph Muscat was elected leader of the Labour Party he was projected by the PN as an ambitious spoilt brat by his opponents – and look what they got.

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an end to this.

Criticism is OK, justified and necessary – a bit of cynicism doesn’t harm anyone either.  However we have seen a general increase in the flow of derision towards Dr Simon Busuttil on a number of occasions, even by high ranking party exponents who were projecting Busuttil as the Labour Party’s trump card – ‘if he’s around there is guarantee that PL will keep winning’.

Now let’s put the record straight here.

These type of comments irritate me because what they expose, if anything, is a lack of poise.  If elections are won because there is Busuttil around, what does that say about the party in Government?  This is a similar odious argument I used to hear when Dr Alfred Sant was leader of the PL – that come what may, the PN will keep winning until Sant is around.

Nonsense.

Ex-MP and ex-MEP Joseph Cuschieri himself has contested this approach; Għandna nieqfu nirredikolaw u nissotovalutaw lil Dr Simon Busuttil u lill-Partit Nazzjonalista. Nemmen li din qed isservi biss ta’ ħsara u mhux ta’ ġid.”

Negative campaigning and taking the mickey is counter-productive.

I think the PL is winning because Joseph Muscat is a good campaigner, on many fronts he is producing the goods, is good with the media and is growing in prime ministerial stature.  He also has an excellent team around him, sharp and crispy – it has nothing to do with the qualities (or lack) of his counterpart.

But on the other hand, as I have said in a column in this paper some weeks back, Re-inventing the opposition, ‘….in my opinion, the worse thing the PL can do is to underestimate Busuttil, the same way that the PN had misjudged Muscat.  I predict that within three years, Busuttil will be in a position to give Joseph Muscat a run for his money.’ 

Then again the PN needs to come down to earth.

The PN has still lost these elections with a hefty margin.

If the PN wants to be true to itself they know that the statistics of this ballot are no reassurance.  The argument that the Nationalist Party is ‘half-way there’ is preposterous.  Some simple mathematics show that this is not the case.  The best the PN can elicit at this stage is a moral boost.

I still think that Joseph Muscat’s popularity and charisma has been confirmed but this ballot has also exposed another reality – Simon Busuttil is starting to recuperate.   Busuttil is good at micro-level campaigning but his public appearances so far have been erratic especially when confronted by Joseph Muscat and still weak when facing up to the media.

In politics, leadership is dependent mainly on one key element; people need to see you as a (potential) winner and then they start coming back – in this sense the PN in these elections has made some gain, nothing to shout about, but there is a start.

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